Beck’s new album is out on CD Baby!
That is, the collection of sheet music he recently published through McSweeney’s called “Song Reader: 20 New Songs by Beck” has been recorded in its entirety (for the very first time) by the beloved Portland Cello Project — and it’s now available on CDBaby.com.
Portland Cello Project is known for taking on musical challenges — constantly performing with new guests (of which I’ve had the double-fun privilege of being on two occasions), changing up its repertoire for every show, sharing the stage with everyone from Buckethead to Garrison Keiller, and touring in rock clubs with… lots and lots of cellos (obviously)!
But they’ve topped themselves with their newest release: Portland Cello Project Play Beck Hansen’s Song Reader.
So I interviewed PCP’s artistic director Douglas Jenkins about the project, how a cello orchestra makes its way in the world, and how they beat everyone else to the punch on this Beck thang!
An interview with Portland Cello Project’s Douglas Jenkins
CR: First, can you give us a brief history of PCP?
DJ: Cello Project started about five years ago and has evolved into a group that does three things: 1: we attempt to take the cello places you wouldn’t normally see the instrument (everywhere from bars in small towns, to loading dock block parties in big cities, and yes… symphony halls). 2: we attempt to play music on the cello you wouldn’t normally hear on the instrument (everything from Bach to Britney Spears to Beck… and that’s only the B’s!) 3: We believe in bridging the irrational gaps between musical communities, mostly by reaching out to collaborate with folks of all backgrounds whenever possible.
CR: What is the Beck Hansen Song Reader?
DJ: It’s complicated and I don’t want to put words in Beck’s or McSweeney’s mouths. These articles I think are the best at explaining it:
CR: How did y’all come to record the first full album of Beck’s new songs?
DJ: Well, as soon as it was announced it was so obviously a wonderful idea, so we kind of started preparing for it. This is something we do — put together shows of 20 brand new songs. And I’m a procrastinator, so it’s usually in a short term like a week or two that I get the arrangements written. And we just knew the songs would be great (and they are). Some are like Sea Change if it were written in the 1930’s. Personally I couldn’t have been more stoked about the idea. Here’s a songwriter I’ve been going to see since I was in high school, and whose work and creativity and drive I respect to no end, and he’s making sheet music we can do whatever we want with? If that’s not a magical gift landing in Cello Project’s lap, I’m not sure what is. We had to do it.
CR: 20 songs! Were you under a time crunch to get it finished by a certain deadline? How did you make that happen? Were you running back and forth between studios?
DJ: Our deadline was simply, as soon as possible, trying to find that acceptable line between speed and quality. Our concerts for this were actually supposed to be this coming weekend, but I had our agent push the dates back a week when we heard the release date for the Beck, just so we could have a shot at being the first to have them all down and amazing and in front of a sold out crowd (or three sold out crowds as it ended up being).I did all the production, tracking, and basic engineering (excepting a couple of tracks Larry Crane recorded). A lot of the basics were recorded live at my studio (it has a large tracking room). Mostly 10-15 hour days on the tracking. A lot of playing through stuff, re-writing orchestrations on the spot, or completely re-doing the feel of songs to see what they were like in different styles. We re-recorded the first song on the record 3 different times, so we actually have multiple versions of that in different styles. (Picture it as a rockin’ Journey song — that’s the version that got my vote, though I really like that we ended up with the slow sexy jam version.) Anyway, after tracking, I’d send stuff to Larry Crane or Adam Selzer to mix as it got done. They mixed the epic stuff with drums and large orchestrations. I mixed the easier acoustic cello-y stuff.
CR: So, what was the arrangement process like? Normally when you guys arrange a tune, you’ve got a recording to reference or work against; this time — just a white sheet of paper with little black dots. Did that change how you relate to the music you’re interpreting?
DJ: Oh yeah. It was wonderful. You can take some of these songs in literally any direction. So we kind of just trusted our gut. And like I said, a lot more editing and re-writing in the studio than we normally do for a live show. The songs got to really get some thoughtful development that way. I can’t wait to hear what other folks do with it. We stayed pretty close to the page for the most part, so ours is a pretty straight-forward read of the Song Reader, just orchestrated much bigger, and with the cello as the focus. And still, we made some mistakes that we only realized later on. Man, but I can’t wait to hear the avant metal new age electronica versions of some of these that people are bound to record.
CR: PCP has a reputation for trying new things at every show and putting out albums with different guests and themes. Can you talk about some of the pluses and minuses of being so fluid?
DJ: Best thing about it is that it always keeps you on your toes as a musician. You can never fall back on anything. And I think if we did, this group would have been a dead gimmick a long time ago, or utterly boring and I’d have quit. I love that every show is different than the one that preceeded it, and every show in the future will be different than anything we’ve ever done.
CR: What’s PCPs “team” like, in terms of music biz support? Label, publicist, booking agent, etc. And how do y’all coordinate your efforts?
DJ: We have two booking agents, one for PAC gigs, one for everything else. We have a wonderful publicist in NYC. I am the Artistic Director and manager, write about 90% of the arrangements, and I tour manage. Weinland Creative does our online stuff. One of the members does our merch stuff and keeps that all in line. We have a couple of regular sound engineers who are key to what we do.
CR: When you tour, you obviously can’t bring every guest vocalist or play all 800 songs in your repertoire? How do you streamline things for the road?
DJ: We can fit 8 folks in our van, so that’s usually our max. Sometimes we rent a second van if we’re doing enough bigger rooms. Every tour tends to have a theme just like every big local run of shows has a theme. We’ll be touring the Song Reader material with two of the singers from the record in late January and early-February.
CR: So you’re going to play this Beck Song Reader in its entirety at an upcoming show. Any chance Beck will show up?
DJ: Ha! We’d be honored if he did. We were honored he posted our Old Shanghai video on his Twitter and Facebook feeds a week or two ago. I met him once in Hawaii playing at a Tower Records, where he made up songs about stealing CD’s from Tower Records. I’m certain he wouldn’t remember me, though.
CR: What happens next for PCP?
DJ: Well, we have another record finished ready to release, but then this came up. So that’ll probably come out summer time.
CR: So, there are cats on the album cover. How? Why?
DJ: I actually have no answer to that question. But thanks for noticing them! 🙂
Check out Portland Cello Project’s new album of Beck tunes HERE.